Bottle #21: Jose Cuervo Especial Gold

Jul 5, 2023

When I think back on my vague memories of buying mini bottles for Grandma, I remember the one that had a hat. In my mind’s eye it was a sombrero, and thus a bottle of bad tequila. This bottle does not have a hat, but fits the “bad tequila” descriptor pretty well.

Bottle #21 is Jose Cuervo Especial Gold. Jose Cuervo makes some good tequilas, but the Especial line is what are called “mixto” tequilas. Before 1964, Mexican law required that tequila be made from 100% agave. But as tequila’s popularity grew, the law was changed to allow the use of up to 30% other sources of carbohydrate for fermentation, which usually meant sugarcane. In 1970, the law was changed again, and this time, makers were only required to use 51% agave.

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At the time, this was probably a wise move. Agave plants take a long time to grow, and the 1960s and 70s were a time of explosive demand for tequila. Had they not taken that step back then, who knows if we’d even have tequila today. But diluting the agave doesn’t usually make for the best tasting tequila.

So what drove this massive popularity? Tequila’s roots go back to the seventeenth century, and Jose Cuervo is the oldest existing producer. They received the first license to produce tequila from King Carlos IV of Spain in 1795. They were also the first tequila to be packaged in bottles, starting in 1880, which gave them a big advantage in the American market.

While tequila had been imported to the US since the 1850s, it had its first period of popularity when smuggled across the southern border during Prohibition. It picked up again in the 1940s, when US distilleries were converted to making torpedo fuel for World War II. That’s also when Jose Cuervo launched its first ad campaign in the US, promoting the brand and a drink to go with it: “Margarita: It’s more than a girl’s name.”

And with that, things were fully off to the races, with increasing sales driving down the required agave percentage. But Americans didn’t seem to mind that, and Cuervo Gold cemented itself as the market leader. They were helped along by a little band you might have heard of, the Rolling Stones, who dubbed their 1972 tour the “Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour.” The story goes that Mick Jagger fell in love with the drink at the Trident bar in Sausalito, California, and they took it on the road. In the 70s, Cuervo printed the recipe for the Tequila Sunrise right on the bottles of Especial, and in 1983, Shelley West’s recording of the song “Jose Cuervo” was the Billboard country music song of the year.

My bottle of Cuervo Gold is a half-empty plastic one, thanks to evaporation, and dates to sometime between 1989 and 1996. I know it can’t be earlier than 1989 because it has a government warning label printed on it. And it can’t be later than 1996, because it was bottled and imported by Heublein, Inc, and that company name was defunct by 1996. As a “gold” tequila, it is most likely a mix of some lightly aged tequila and some unaged, with most of the gold color coming from caramel coloring rather than wood. And it’s a mixto, of course. There were some 100% agave tequilas being imported into the US in the 1980s and 1990s, but the idea that tequila could be a high-quality spirit good for anything but shots and frozen margaritas wouldn’t really take off until the 2000s.

Here’s hoping Grandma had a few bottles of the good stuff in her collection. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the one with the hat.

Watch me taste this bottle with Rebecca Wauldron.

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Bottle #21: Jose Cuervo Especial Gold

Jul 5, 2023 |

When I think back on my vague memories of buying mini bottles for Grandma, I remember the one that had a hat. In my mind’s eye it was a sombrero, and thus a bottle of bad tequila. This bottle does not have a hat, but fits the “bad tequila” descriptor pretty well.

Bottle #21 is Jose Cuervo Especial Gold. Jose Cuervo makes some good tequilas, but the Especial line is what are called “mixto” tequilas. Before 1964, Mexican law required that tequila be made from 100% agave. But as tequila’s popularity grew, the law was changed to allow the use of up to 30% other sources of carbohydrate for fermentation, which usually meant sugarcane. In 1970, the law was changed again, and this time, makers were only required to use 51% agave.

At the time, this was probably a wise move. Agave plants take a long time to grow, and the 1960s and 70s were a time of explosive demand for tequila. Had they not taken that step back then, who knows if we’d even have tequila today. But diluting the agave doesn’t usually make for the best tasting tequila.

So what drove this massive popularity? Tequila’s roots go back to the seventeenth century, and Jose Cuervo is the oldest existing producer. They received the first license to produce tequila from King Carlos IV of Spain in 1795. They were also the first tequila to be packaged in bottles, starting in 1880, which gave them a big advantage in the American market.

While tequila had been imported to the US since the 1850s, it had its first period of popularity when smuggled across the southern border during Prohibition. It picked up again in the 1940s, when US distilleries were converted to making torpedo fuel for World War II. That’s also when Jose Cuervo launched its first ad campaign in the US, promoting the brand and a drink to go with it: “Margarita: It’s more than a girl’s name.”

And with that, things were fully off to the races, with increasing sales driving down the required agave percentage. But Americans didn’t seem to mind that, and Cuervo Gold cemented itself as the market leader. They were helped along by a little band you might have heard of, the Rolling Stones, who dubbed their 1972 tour the “Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour.” The story goes that Mick Jagger fell in love with the drink at the Trident bar in Sausalito, California, and they took it on the road. In the 70s, Cuervo printed the recipe for the Tequila Sunrise right on the bottles of Especial, and in 1983, Shelley West’s recording of the song “Jose Cuervo” was the Billboard country music song of the year.

My bottle of Cuervo Gold is a half-empty plastic one, thanks to evaporation, and dates to sometime between 1989 and 1996. I know it can’t be earlier than 1989 because it has a government warning label printed on it. And it can’t be later than 1996, because it was bottled and imported by Heublein, Inc, and that company name was defunct by 1996. As a “gold” tequila, it is most likely a mix of some lightly aged tequila and some unaged, with most of the gold color coming from caramel coloring rather than wood. And it’s a mixto, of course. There were some 100% agave tequilas being imported into the US in the 1980s and 1990s, but the idea that tequila could be a high-quality spirit good for anything but shots and frozen margaritas wouldn’t really take off until the 2000s.

Here’s hoping Grandma had a few bottles of the good stuff in her collection. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the one with the hat.

Watch me taste this bottle with Rebecca Wauldron.

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